Rant: Ethical Journalism

August 29, 2008

I sometimes like to rail against news outlets and journalists for their shoddy reporting.  It’s not that I think that all journalists have an agenda.  What drives me nuts is what I generally perceive to be a lack of conscientious effort, combined with a misguided effort to be “fair” and “cover all sides” that allows misconceptions and lack of truthfulness and accuracy to pervade news coverage. 

A classic example:  A sitting President will visit a town and give a speech in front of a group of, say, 3,000 people who gathered to hear him speak.  A group of 5 that disagree with that President’s policies also gather at the venue to protest him.  The news media will cover the event, and give as much news coverage to the 5 people who showed up to protest as they do to the 3,000 people who showed up in support.  How is that fair?  I’m not saying the ratio has to be even, like 3,000 seconds to 5 seconds of coverage.  Maybe if 200 people showed up to protest, they would deserve some coverage.  What I’m saying that when exactly one car full of people shows up, opposite that of a crowd that will fill a large concert hall, then the group of 5 people don’t even deserve to be mentioned.  It’s not fair and accurate coverage of the event to cover those 5 people.  It’s an insult to the 3,000 others.  Just because the 5 protesters showed up doesn’t give them the “right” to be heard, and you’re not being an “unbiased” journalist by giving them coverage.

Similarly, if someone says “On a sunny, cloudless day, the sky color is blue,” and I say “No, the color of the sky is typically neon green,” it is not good or ethical journalism to present “both sides” and report what I said, to prove that you are fair and objective.  Yet this happens all the time in the world of political journalism.  Politicians on both sides of the aisle will say something about their opponents that could not be more factually incorrect, and the press just regurgitates it back to the public verbatim.  Never mind whether it’s true or not.  Somehow, deciding whether something is true has been defined in American journalism as giving an opinion.

Case in point:  John McCain announced today his Vice Presidential running mate, Governor Sarah Palin from Alaska.  In the article about the announcement on FoxNews.com, they felt it necessary to quote an Obama spokesperson about the nomination.  Why?  I don’t know.  So as to show both sides is my only guess.  And this is what was said:

“Today, John McCain put the former mayor of a town of 9,000 with zero foreign policy experience a heartbeat away from the presidency. Governor Palin shares John McCain’s commitment to overturning Roe v. Wade, the agenda of Big Oil and continuing George Bush’s failed economic policies — that’s not the change we need, it’s just more of the same,” said spokesman Bill Burton.

Um.  Yeah.  Let’s look that that statement for a moment.  The first part, about “mayor of a town of 9,000” is just typical political rhetoric.  Palin started her political career in 1992 by serving on a city council, and then was elected and re-elected mayor (and President of the Alaska Conference of Mayors), and then appointed Ethics Commissioner of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, and then elected Governor of the State of Alaska before working her way up to a VP nomination, as opposed to Obama, who went from law school teacher to Senator to Presidential nominee in 4 years.  But that part of the quote is standard political spin.

Next comes reference to sharing John McCain’s commitment to overturn Roe v. Wade.  A true statement!  McCain’s website says as much.  Whether McCain would actually do something as President to help make that happen is another story, given his lackluster track record to date, but Palin is very pro-life, so that part of the statement is probably true.  

The next part, however, is just factually wrong.  The Wikipedia article on Governor Palin says that her “tenure (as Governor) is noted for her independence from Big Oil companies.”  In fact, she resigned as aforementioned Ethics Commissioner of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission protest of fellow Republican’s lack of ethics on the Commission.  How can you be noted for you independence from Big Oil and yet “share John McCain’s agenda of Big Oil?”

The last part, trying to tie them to George Bush, is just more political rhetoric.

So, we have a statement that is one part true, two parts complete rhetoric, and one part completely factually incorrect.  Why is it in that article?  Did anyone even challenge the statement made by the Obama spokesperson, or just cut and paste it into an article?  It’s not good journalism to take factually incorrect statements and print them verbatim without question.

If you look up journalism’s code of ethics, you get various definitions.  But, as pointed out here, all journalistic codes “share common elements including the principles of — truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness and public accountability — as these apply to the acquisition of newsworthy information and its subsequent dissemination to the public.”

All too often, truthfulness and accuracy take a back seat to a perceived objectivity, impartiality, and fairness.  The American public deserves some accountability for this type of journalism gone awry.


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